Top Russia newspaper editors quit, denouncing censorship

by Anna SMOLCHENKO
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Vedemosti joined forces last year with two other leading dailies to denounce the arrest of investigative reporter Ivan Golunov on drugs charges that were later dropped

Senior editors at Russia's most influential business newspaper quit Monday in protest against what they say is censorship while its founder accused the new owner of seeking to destroy the daily.

Vedomosti is one of the last major independent newspapers in Russia, where journalists are increasingly squeezed by curbs on press freedoms and pressure from the Kremlin.

All five Vedomosti deputy editors said Monday they were quitting in protest following the appointment of controversial media figure Andrei Shmarov as editor-in-chief.

Launched in 1999, Vedomosti was co-founded and co-owned by Dutch entrepreneur Derk Sauer's Independent Media, the London-based Financial Times and US business daily, The Wall Street Journal.

"It's tragic," Sauer told AFP of the editors' exodus.

"It's the end of Vedomosti as we know it."

He noted that there was no proof that the Kremlin might be behind the changes but noted that it did not interfere to find a possible compromise either.

While Sauer said he was saddened personally, he added that it was a "much bigger tragedy for Russia".

While the daily newspaper focuses on business and industry news, its editorial section has become a vital space for dissenting voices and debate on political life in Russia.

Like the Financial Times, Vedomosti is published on salmon-coloured paper.

The newspaper has changed hands several times since its first print run, as lawmakers introduced legislation limiting foreign ownership of Russian media.

In March, its reporters and editors were shaken by an announcement from then-owner Demyan Kudryavtsev that he planned to sell the newspaper.

Shmarov, a 65-year-old co-founder of a Kremlin-friendly magazine, was appointed acting editor-in-chief the same month, before the sale was finalised.

- 'My heart is bleeding' -

The newspaper was eventually sold to the head of a little-known regional news agency called FederalPress, Ivan Yeryomin.

Vedomosti journalists have denounced censorship under Shmarov, saying his appointment was political.

They complain they have been barred from covering negative opinion polls of President Vladimir Putin and that Shmarov interfered in coverage of oil giant Rosneft, which is run by Putin's ally Igor Sechin.

In an open letter published by The Bell, an independent news site, the deputy editors said Shmarov repeatedly violated editorial norms and guidelines adopted at Vedomosti.

"We have no other choice but to leave," they said.

Speaking to AFP, executive editor Dmitry Simakov did not rule out Rosneft's playing a role in the affair.

"Rosneft was a major creditor," he said, admitting that "this card might have been played."

An investigation in May by several Russian news outlets, including Vedomosti, concluded that Rosneft leveraged control over the newspaper through debts owed by Kudryavtsev to the oil giant's bank.

Simakov said he had worked at the newspaper for 18 years.

"My heart is bleeding," he said. "But a horrible end is better than endless horror."

The new owner has said he is certain the newspaper would retain "high professional standards".

- 'Vedomosti RIP' -

Vedomosti journalists recently put forward an alternative candidate to lead the paper.

Although nearly 70 staff members backed a long-serving colleague to be editor-in-chief, the owner went ahead with the appointment of Shmarov, they said.

Kremlin critics praised Vedomosti staff for fighting for editorial independence until the end.

"Vedomosti RIP," Yulia Galyamina, a local deputy in Moscow, said on Twitter.

Anna Kachkaeva, a media expert, said: "Vedomosti will be published but it will be a different newspaper."

In May, 2019 the entire politics desk of Russian business daily Kommersant, a Vedomosti rival, quit in protest over censorship.

Last year Vedomosti, Kommersant and a third business newspaper, RBK, helped win the release from jail of investigative reporter Ivan Golunov who was detained on trumped-up drug charges.

All three newspapers published the same front page with the words "I am/we are Ivan Golunov" in giant letters -- a bold act of defiance in a country where most media toe the Kremlin line.

Vedemosti joined forces last year with two other leading dailies to denounce the arrest of investigative reporter Ivan Golunov on drugs charges that were later dropped

The departing editors say editor-in-chief Shmarov interfered with their coverage of both Putin and oil giant Rosneft, run by Putin's top ally Igor Sechin (also pictured)